By Brion O'Connor, Boston Globe Correspondent
Swampscott's Samuel Johnson is back playing defense on the lacrosse pitch after spending the better part of last year in Afghanistan, defending his country as a member of the Massachusetts Army National Guard.
Johnson's military service is "a representation of his character, and some of the values that were instilled in him as a young man,'' said Josh Field, Swampscott High's lacrosse coach.
"Truthfully, I wasn't surprised that Sam chose the military. I knew he'd take full opportunity, when he got back and finished his military obligations, to get his college degree. And I'm delighted to know he's continuing to play lacrosse.''
Private First Class Johnson is a specialist with Bravo Company, First Battalion, 182d Infantry. He was deployed last March, serving seven months in the Khost Province of Afghanistan as part of a multi-disciplinary security force.
This spring, however, the 23-year-old is playing lacrosse as a sophomore for the Clark University Cougars.
"I'm really glad I got on a deployment with my unit. It was a great experience for me,'' Johnson said before the Cougars' season opener against Assumption College.
"But it's nice to be back. I'm glad I did it, and I'm glad it's over.''
So, too, is his mother, Paula Popeo of Swampscott. "I cannot tell you what a terrifying experience it was,'' she said. "I cannot emphasize that enough. I feel like the luckiest person on the face of the earth to have him home.
"He grew up as a very overweight, chubby kid who blossomed into this 6-foot-3 specimen,'' she said.
"Sports have just been such a big part of his life. When he left, and we went through this turmoil knowing he was in harm's way, all I kept dreaming about was being on that lacrosse field, and being able to see him play again.''
At a solid 214 pounds, Johnson is an imposing defenseman. More importantly from a team perspective, he also brings a wealth of lacrosse knowledge, and real-world experience, that Clark coach Jeff Cohen hopes will provide a steady hand for his young Cougars squad.
"He's going to grow into a huge leader for us,'' said Cohen, who is now in his third year at Clark.
"I've already spoken to him about what he wants to do in the leadership role now, where he's figuring out how to play within our system, versus the next few years where he'll be comfortable in our system and playing a lot.''
Johnson's path to Clark was a circuitous one. As a senior at Swampscott High in 2007, he led a fledgling Big Blue program to its first tournament win. Then it was on to a postgraduate year at Phillips Exeter Academy, a quick detour at Virginia Military Institute, and a one-year layover at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, whose Bullets lost in the 2009 Division 3 national championships, 9-7, to SUNY Cortland at Gillette Stadium.
"I've had the good luck to play with some unbelievable programs, like Gettysburg. Coach [Hank] Janczyk has been there forever, and is just a phenomenal coach,'' said Johnson. "My coaches at Exeter were unbelievable. So I've definitely played a lot of lacrosse, and hopefully I can bring that to the table.''
After the 2009 fall semester at Gettysburg, Johnson was again on the move, joining the National Guard and undergoing basic and infantry training at Fort Benning in Georgia in the spring of 2010.
Wanting to be closer to home and lured by the prospects of reviving a moribund Cougars lacrosse program, Johnson transferred to Clark in the fall of 2010. During his recruitment visit, he met future teammates Nick Tobin of Marblehead and Nick Figliola of Weston, Conn., and the three became fast friends.
"He immediately became very close to my group of friends and the team,'' said Figliola, a junior attacker who runs up against Johnson every practice. "He's looked up to by a lot of the younger kids because of his background, and what he's done, and what he's still doing, for our country. He's also a very, very good lacrosse player.''
Johnson's lacrosse dream, however, was again put on hold last year. After his first semester, Johnson got his marching orders from Uncle Sam.
His company was going to Afghanistan as part of a Provincial Reconstruction Team. It was, like many of Johnson's travels, a learning experience.
"It gives you a certain maturity that I don't think you can gain from being a four-year college student, 18 to 22,'' he said.
"I saw a different part of the world. It opened my eyes to the struggles that aren't openly visible in the United States.''
Johnson wasn't forgotten in Worcester, as his Clark teammates played with his Bravo Company badge on their helmets, a gesture that Popeo said "brought tears to my eyes.''
Cohen said Johnson returned to Clark in great shape, but not in lacrosse shape. However, given his defender's humble nature and can-do attitude, Cohen expects the sophomore not only to lead by example but also prove to be an important cog in the team's success.
"He's able to come in on a daily basis and just work extremely hard,'' said the Clark coach.
"He's been fairly quiet so far, just getting to know the guys and getting to know his role on the field. But as a guy who is the same age of the seniors, maybe even a little older, yet isn't afraid to work with the younger guys, he's been pretty exceptional.''
Tobin, who played against Johnson while attending Marblehead High, said his teammate's maturity is rubbing off.
"Coach Cohen talks about dealing with adversity a lot, with games, or if something doesn't go the right way, and Sam has experienced that to a T,'' said the senior midfielder.
"He's always calm, he doesn't panic, he's not yelling at people. You can always look at Sam to keep his cool.''
Still, even Johnson can't do everything, and his decision to return to the Clark campus curtailed another ambition: to serve as an assistant coach for Swampscott's Big Blue squad.
"From a program standpoint, it's probably the greatest compliment when kids want to come back and be part of the program,'' said Field.
"Sam would have been a great addition to our staff, but more importantly, he's pursuing his own goals right now.
"Look back on that time when Sam was a senior, and led Swampscott to our first-ever high school playoff victory,'' he said. "That put Swampscott on the map. He and the seniors that year played a huge role in helping Swampscott become an established program.''